Living with history in Tutbury

PUBLISHED: 09:00 24 July 2014 | UPDATED: 12:11 24 July 2014

Tutbury's main street with the old coaching inn, The Dog & Partridge

Tutbury's main street with the old coaching inn, The Dog & Partridge

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As Tutbury gears up to celebrate the 925th anniversary of its impressive parish church, Sue Greenwood explores past and present changes in the historic village

Historic Tutbury Castle has pride of place on the hill overlooking the townHistoric Tutbury Castle has pride of place on the hill overlooking the town

‘Can you see that?’ asks Len, pointing to a wide metal bar in the roof of the fireplace. ‘That’s a railway track!’ Not that a railway line ever ran over the Bettam’s fireplace in their handsome cottage in Tutbury, but a large piece of elderly railtrack is helping hold up the stairs over the fireplace.

That I can see the railtrack, and the fireplace itself (easily big enough to accommodate half-a-dozen inspectors), is a story in itself.

‘When we moved in, this was all bricked up and there was an ugly 50s gas fire here.’

‘The fire was actually condemned!’ adds Angie. ‘But, because the house had been listed in the 50s, with a 50s fireplace in, we had to apply for planning permission to reveal the inglenook fireplace and get rid of the 50s one. Can you imagine that?’

Angie and Len Bettam of 400-year-old Cruck Cottage  Photo: Sarah ReeveAngie and Len Bettam of 400-year-old Cruck Cottage Photo: Sarah Reeve

Their home, Cruck Cottage, on the village’s Ludgate Street, is one of the oldest residential houses in Tutbury with parts of it dating from 1620. The inglenook fireplace, rescued from behind its modern brickwork, is believed to have originally been a blacksmith’s forge – documents show Joseph Smith buying the house, garden, blacksmith’s shop, and a couple of fields for £116 in 1723.

Those documents are another thing. Angie goes to a cupboard at the side of the fireplace and roots around the hoover and household stuff to pull out a little old brown suitcase, of the sort an evacuee might have clung to on her journey to the countryside.

‘This came with the house,’ she announces. Inside are sheets and sheets of wafer-thin, handwritten deeds, wills and documents charting 300 years of the house’s history through a dozen owners. ‘These are amazing. Some of them are really, really delicate. You look at these documents and they’re all handwritten and the wax seals are just beautiful.’ The Bettams have added their own documents to the brown suitcase.

‘What we’ve said is that these must be sold with the house and remain with it,’ says Len. ‘And we’ve added to them. We’re trying to give some continuity to it.’

Lorraine Genders loves living in her new home in Tutbury  Photo: Sarah ReeveLorraine Genders loves living in her new home in Tutbury Photo: Sarah Reeve

‘You’d hope someone buying this house would be buying the history and want to add to that history and keep it going, not destroy it,’ Angie adds. They bought the house in 2001 from two sisters, who had inherited it from their mother, a Mrs Ward, but who only visited occasionally from their new homes in America.

‘The sisters told us about the suitcase,’ said Len. ‘The house had been empty for nine years. They used to come across and use it as a base. They were insistent that whoever bought it should be sympathetic to it. We took them out for tea and convinced them we could look after the house – they inspected us really!’

The fireplace and the suitcase were not the only secrets the house gave up in the year it took the Bettams to renovate it: arsenic-based paint on one old wall that could never be stripped off; hidden beams boxed in in the master bedroom; the cruck frame (from which the house gets its name) and roof supports in the loft that are just crude tree branches. ‘But this is the best thing we found!’ Len shows me the third and smallest bedroom. Across from his computer is a section of wall covered in protective glass. Behind the glass is exposed the original, 400-year-old wattle and daub wall and pegged beams. ‘When we found it I thought it seems a pity to cover it up again, so I built the cover and made it a feature. I like to think that you could pull a peg out and 400 years ago someone cut that and now you’re holding it in your hand.’

What’s also worth thinking about is that when that craftsman cut and turned that peg 400 years ago, he was making it to go into a brand new house on a new development. Cruck Cottage had then been part of a long row of cottages stretching up Ludgate Street. All the others have since been demolished and replaced by a mixed bag of new houses, as part of the continual change and redevelopment that many of Staffordshire’s historic villages have seen.

This year is the 925th ‘birthday’ of Tutbury’s oldest working building – the Priory Church of St Mary the Virgin – an anniversary being celebrated through many events, including an open gardens weekend and flower festival at the end of June.

The Bettams will be part of the 925th festivities when they open their garden at Cruck Cottage as part of Tutbury Open Gardens, with around 19 village gardens opening to raise funds to help maintain the ancient church. In its 925 years, St Mary’s has watched over countless changes in the village’s fortunes: the siege of its castle (more than once); the rise and fall of its silk industry, cotton industry, glass making (twice), hide tanning and gypsum grinding trades and, of course, the building and rebuilding of hundreds of homes.

Henry de Ferrers founded Tutbury’s church and priory in 1089. He’d been given Tutbury and its castle as reward for supporting King William I (William the Conqueror). William created that marvel of middle management the Domesday Book in 1086. The record included Tutbury, then one of the most important settlements in medieval England.

The church itself has seen its own share of changes. John Sneyd, former lay reader at the church (‘I’ve retired four times and been brought back again!’) tells me how, after the Priory church was surrendered to Henry VIII in 1538, much of the building was pulled down and stripped of anything valuable. ‘All we’ve got is a fragment, about half from when the monks lived there.’

A century later, and the church found itself in a village split by the English Civil War – with the castle supporting Charles I and under siege, while the town and its church supported Cromwell.

‘There’s a story,’ said John, ‘of Cromwell’s troops marching up the High Street to the castle, and talk about a cannonball hitting the church. But one gathers the siege of the castle wasn’t a particularly violent business.’

John and his family moved to Tutbury in 1968 and he remembers his first view of the Priory Church of St Mary’s: ‘Staggering! I think like everybody else I looked at it and thought “what’s that doing here, in this little village?” But when you think, when it was built Tutbury was a much more important place than it is now.’

In its 925th year, the church is presiding over another big change for the village as Tutbury expands to include over 200 new homes – phase one of a controversial housing development being built off Burton Road.

Len Bettam served on the committee that agreed the Village Design Statement in 2007, and feels the new development has ‘some scale issues’. The Design Statement, and more recently the Local Plan for the village, emphasised the need to maintain the village character, including access to the surrounding countryside, and restricted new build to within an agreed village envelope. However, as Parish Councillor Sue Adams explains, the new development sits outside that envelope and Tutbury’s Parish Council fears it will overwhelm village infrastructure. ‘There are 224 homes all together planned and then 26 more over the next five years. We’re concerned that the infrastructure isn’t here in the village to take much more and that this development is really going to overload it. It isn’t the extra people we object to, it’s the amount of houses and where they are situated. The Burton Road hill is quite steep so it tends to restrict people coming into the village. Most want to drive down and then we have this problem over parking.’

The council has been battling for more parking areas to support local trade but space in the historic village centre is restricted. They are also concerned about ‘worrying’ draft local authority plans for future build which indicate Duchy land, which surrounds parts of Tutbury, also potentially being used for new housing. Sue added: ‘But we really hope that the people moving in will be a part of the village and join in with village life and will use the local shops and businesses.’

Lorraine Genders is one of the village’s newest residents, and was in the middle of moving into her new home on the Burton Road development when we met. ‘I was so excited when I got the key,’ she tells me, beaming. ‘I was like a kid at Christmas!’

Her bungalow is light, airy and built with details reflecting Tutbury’s heritage – red and blue bricks, deep windowsills, high ceilings and a traditional porch. ‘I like its heritage aspects. Everything is in keeping with the style of the village. I even like that we’re restricted in the paint colours we can use so there are no crazy colours that wouldn’t fit in.’

Developers Peveril Homes said in a statement that they worked alongside local planners to ensure house designs reflected Tutbury’s architecturally distinctive features, and that the new development would include a community centre and ‘plenty of green space for residents to use.’

Lorraine was one of the first to sign up for a house on the new development, picking a plot off the plan last September and watching her new home being built. ‘I kept coming up to the site and this area. I even went around on the Open Gardens weekend! I’d just got a feel for it and wanted to be here.’

Lorraine down-sized – moving from a four-bedroom house in Branston to her two-bedroom bungalow on the Tutbury development. She lost her husband, Pete, three years ago and for her the new house is a turning point: ‘It’s my way of moving on.’ There’s a new love in her life too – Terry, who hovers protectively as Lorraine shows me her new home.

‘I like the open-plan living room. My youngest son is in Australia and I like the open-plan living they have there – it’s more social. I didn’t want to feel closed in and this just makes it feel open.’ It’s a glorious sunny day and we walk out into the garden – just green grass for now. I left such a nice garden at the old house and so many plants! But I’ve got ideas for this one.’ I ask whether she’ll be opening her revamped garden for Open Gardens next year? ‘Oh, I don’t know!’ she laughs. ‘But I will go round this year and it’ll be nice with all the activities for the 925th birthday. I’m really looking forward to it all.’

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